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Ulmer Hands Out The Medals

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
You can’t beat a good Olympic theme.

That’s why we decided to grade the Leafs along Olympic lines -gold, silver and bronze- going into the break.

The problem here is copyright. The five rings guys are a little fussy on who expropriates their trademark for schlocky award stories.

That’s why we have decided to rename these awards the Ulmlympics. Rest assured, these babies will have the same mineral value as Olympic medals only with a little more pizzazz.

One note, the players who came to Toronto four games ago can only be judged on what they have done with the Maple Leafs. I can’t very well make evaluations on players I have rarely seen. Well, I could, but I won’t.

Let’s start under the podium.

Participation or even Non-Participation Ulmlympic medals:

Jeff Finger: Finger has fallen off the map this season.  He has played only 30 games and garnered scant minutes when he does see the ice. At minus 12,  Finger has two seasons after this one on his contract.

John Mitchell: A knee injury has undermined Mitchell’s sophomore season. He had three goals in 39 game and sat minus-9 games going Friday night’s game in St. Louis.

Garnet Exelby: Brought to Toronto largely due to the Leafs’ desire to have someone else pay Pavel Kubina’s $5 million bucks a year, Exelby has performed sparingly. Still, his minus five isn’t bad for a guy who continually came out of the press box. He hasn’t scored this year, but you can make a legitimate argument that in a limited role he could help someone.

Ulmlympic bronze medal:

Rickard Wallin: The Swedish centre forward  can handle himself on the defensive side of the puck. But Wallin scored his first goal of the season in New Jersey last week and four months is a little too long to wait. He needs to be bigger and get more pop on his shot.

Wayne Primeau:
Primeau has been exactly as advertised, a big steady guy who can win faceoffs and play on your fourth line.

Colton Orr: Seems to fight fine.

Mike Komisarek: Projected as a physically dominating presence, Komisarek spent his first few months as a Leaf trying to do too much. Then came a shoulder injury that ended his season.

Mikhail Grabovski:  Wrist injury has knocked Grabovski out of lineup until post-Olympics. Still, even when healthy he remains a puzzling mix of speed and desire who can’t quite get to the right place at the right time. Grabovski had seven goals in 42 games and while his minus-1 speaks to progress in his defensive game, he remains a difficult player to catch or to even put a finger on.

Viktor Stalberg
: Blessed with premium speed, Stalberg should be a regular with the Leafs. Instead he has spent most of his season with the Marlies. Chicken and the egg syndrome is at play here: he needs to play better to warrant more ice time and better ice time to play better. Clearly, he is not a player who belongs on the fourth line. He should move up the ranks dramatically next season.

Lee Stempniak: Stempniak has given the Leafs some speed and journeyman numbers (14 goals and 29 points).

Ulmlympic Silver Medals:

Fredrik Sjostrom: Sjostrom has been a find. He plays hard, has speed to burn and is an excellent checker. Never mind the one goal, this guy earns his keep.

Tyler Bozak: After a terrible early season which included Swine Flu and injuries, Bozak has found his legs with the Leafs. Ron Wilson projects him as a top six forward. Bozak’s combination of speed, diligence in the face-off circle and hockey sense make his signing last year seem like a steal.

Tomas Kaberle: The resurgence of Luke Schenn and the return from injury of Carl Gunnarsson has cut dramatically into Kaberle’s ice time time. In fact, the only regular defenceman with fewer minutes than Kaberle since the big trade is Exelby. That said, Kaberle is the Leafs’ top scorer and his skating and passing are still razor-sharp.

Alexei Ponikarovsky: Pony has 19 goals this season and is money in the bank for 20 goals a year. But 20 goals probably doesn’t establish you as a front-line player. You need 25 to 30 and that’s a standard Ponikarovsky hasn’t been able to challenge. He is streaky but hard-working, the kind of player who can help a bad team but may get lost on a good one. The Leafs will have an interesting decision as his contract expires in July. Ponikarovsky becomes an unrestricted free agent and the paucity of talented forwards on the market might make him too expensive.

Carl Gunnarsson: Gunnarsson has played only 21 games with the Leafs. That figure is about the only thing keeping him out of consideration for the vaunted Ulmlympic Gold. A seventh-round choice in the 2007 entry draft, Gunnarsson is shaping up to be a dependable, intelligent player you can use in all situations.

Luke Schenn: It has been like two seasons for Schenn. Actually it has been like a half season and  a couple of good couple of months.  Accustomed to unlimited ice time last season, Schenn found himself behind veterans Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin when the season started. He struggled to regain his footing, spent some time out of the lineup and now has settled into a 20-minute a night groove.  Most importantly, he seems to have regained the platform from which he can rebuild his game.

Nikolai Kulemin: Like Schenn, Kulemin seemed to define himself in the second half of the season. Kulemin is not a front liner but rather a talented puck chaser who can grind teams down and a 10-20 goal scorer. Nothing wrong with that.

Jonas Gustavsson: Gustavsson’s transition to the NHL game has been a rocky one. His statistics, .898 save percentage and 3.07 goals against are poor. But he remains an excellent prospect because of his size, athleticism and competetiveness. Unlike Vesa Toskala, he is receptive to coaching and working with legendary goaltending consultant Francois Allaire should accelerate his process. The presence of Jean-Sebastien Giguere means Gustavsson can now become a proper understudy until he is ready to move into the number one job in 2011-2112. To sum up, tough start, lots to like, should be good.

Phil Kessel: There’s no question that Phil Kessel can score. He has 21 goals in just 48 games and considering the fact that he was coming off a serious shoulder injury, that’s a very acceptable total. He has spectacular speed and a great shot. Clearly his playmaking ability has been undersold; he is an inventive, intuitive passer.

The problem with Kessel is something that will be solved with better talent around him. On the power play and in five-on-five, Kessel seems to spend too much time with the puck. He is a sniper, the player who should be the final Leaf to touch the puck in an offensive sequence.

Francois Beauchemin: An understandably slow start is the only thing keeping Beauchemin out of the vaunted gold medal group. Beauchemin has taken on additional minutes that were unavailable in Anaheim and thrived. His minus-12 is ugly, but is mostly the result of the Leafs poor goaltending. He can play in all situations. Good player but because of his sluggish beginnings, a hair shy of an Ulmlympic Gold.

And now the one you have been waiting for, the Ulmlympic Golds.

Dion Phaneuf: The Leafs have not owned a defenceman of such wide-ranging talents since Borje Salming. A rudderless team now has a fearless leader who will change the perception of the club all around the league. His presence has rippled through the lineup and affects the power play, where Kessel now has a lot more room and Phaneuf can unleash his fearsome shot to splay defenders.  Acquiring Phaneuf was a game changer.  There’s a new sheriff in town.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere: Let’s see, two straight shutouts, a .965 save percentage and 1.01 goals against average. Yes, it would appear J.S. Giguere has benefitted from a change of scenery.
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